Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
When cities fail to provide basic amenities like seats at bus stops, community organizations step in with creative DIY fixes.
The world is full of sorry bus stops. The sorriest ones—as Streetsblog has chronicled in their annual contest—are just a sign and a patch of unshaded dirt. And while grassroots organizations have come up with creative ways to reimagine bus stops as exercise hubs, sustainable gardens, and the like, many would stand to benefit from a more modest addition: a better place to sit.
Benches can be hard to come by at bus stops, much less full bus shelters, even as transit advocates have long stressed their benefits, especially for older riders. Better amenities can boost ridership, according to a Transit Center report, and given the worrying state of bus use nationwide, installing better benches should be a low-cost way for cities to address a low-hanging fruit.
So what’s getting in their way? Cities can fund bus seating via advertising, but in some cases, according to Transit Center, the money from bus-stop ads doesn’t get invested into bus-stop amenities. Then there’s the bureaucracy over which agency is in charge of handling street furniture—is it the parks department, the transportation department, or in the case of Los Angeles, the department of public works? Adding benches may also require approval by city council, but not before residents add their input. Sometimes, neighbors and local businesses resist adding sidewalk amenities for bus riders, believing that they lure loiterers.
That’s where guerrilla bus stops come in. Some are the work of community organizations; others the doing of actual masked vigilantes. The efforts can be as minimal as setting out a lawn chair, and as elaborate as artistically wrapping handmade wooden benches around bus stop signs. Here’s a roundup of some of the simplest, and most creative, community solutions.
Benches built right into the bus pole
In Los Angeles, a masked artist has been building wooden benches on the spot in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, El Sereno, and downtown, according to an interview with the Los Angeles Times. When the newspaper caught up with the artist last November, he had installed more than a dozen. The wooden benches, wide enough to snugly fit three people, are constructed right around the bus stop sign so they can’t be easily moved—though the Times reporter notes that after watching the artist install one of his benches, it disappeared five days later.
The building blocks of a better bus stop
To ease waiting times, Reconnect Rochester, a group dedicated to improving the transit system in Rochester, New York, began placing colorful wooden cubes at bus stops in 2014. Working with volunteers and city officials, the group has now installed 35 cubes around town, and has inspired residents in the nearby city of Buffalo to build their own boxes. Each measures 2 feet on each side—big enough to fit two adults or a bunch of kids. Painted in bold hues of blue, green, yellow, and red, they resemble children’s building blocks. “Quite fitting for Rochester,” the group wrote in a blog post, “the home of the National Toy Hall of Fame.”
Benches designed for the elderly
They don’t look like your typical benches: Part of the seat is raised higher than normal and angled upwards, with a vertical pole attached, to assist older adults in sitting down and standing up. The back stands more vertical than other benches and the armrest is angled to provide more comfort.
Designers at Tiny WPA, an organization that gets youth involved in neighborhood design projects, created it as part of a collaboration with the nonprofit Ralston Center to make West Philadelphia more age-friendly. A walkability audit in 2016 found that there were only 12 usable benches among the area’s 208 blocks. The installation of these benches has been a slow process, though. Though the project began in 2016, only three benches were installed last October, a pace the organizers blame on the bureaucracy of getting city approval, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Benches with a pointed message for the city
There’s nothing fancy about the benches that the Better Bus Coalition has been chaining to signposts throughout Cincinnati, Ohio—where the city council, citing improper maintenance, began removing ad-sponsored benches back in 2006. The DIY ones take about an hour to make, and cost roughly $30 in lumber. They stand out because of their bright blue color, and because they’re now at bus stops where no seating existed before.
All the while, the group has been pushing the city to better serve its bus riders by investing more the infrastructure, adding more routes, and creating bus-only lanes. They’re also endorsing a earning-tax increase to help fund the improvements. One bench in particular has a message hand-written in marker: “This bench supports bus riders more than the city does.”
Benches with free books
A startup in Detroit is taking bus stops a step further and building bus benches that double as tiny libraries. After winning $1,100 from a crowdfunding event in 2013, Sit On It Detroit began building benches using reclaimed wood, each with a shelf underneath stocked with books for riders to read while they wait for the bus, starting with stops near schools.
Since then, the pair of entrepreneurs who cofounded the company have been working with various organizations and getting brand sponsorships to put benches all over Motor City—at bus stops, parks, and various neighborhoods. (The business side of the company also builds furniture for private businesses.)
(H/T: Block Party Platform)